You’ve probably heard the phrase progressive overload banded about by coaches and influencers, but you may not be sure exactly what it is. Well, put simply, progressive overload is a principle that’s the basis of gaining strength and muscle. It’s supported by a wealth of scientific research, and, without wanting to be hyperbolic, is fundamental for making the progress in the gym you’ve been looking for.
Every single workout across the web should be encouraging you to utilise this principle because without it you’re wasting your precious gym time. If there ever was a silver bullet when it comes to building mass, this is it.
For that reason (and not before time) we’ve taken an in-depth look at what progressive overload is, as well as the ways to include it in your programme and how soon you should be seeing results. We’ve also put together a workout programme to get you started on your muscle-gaining journey.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is essentially when we progressively overload the muscles over time to cause adaptation. This adaptation results in muscle gain and increased strength. Progressive overload can be used with cardiovascular exercise as well, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on resistance training.
According to a study published in the Timişoara Physical Education and Rehabilitation Journal ‘through the use of progressive overload, an athlete builds upon their work capacity, strength and conditioning level in a systematic and logical way. The overload training principle (also called the progressive overload principle) forces athletes out of their comfort zones to gradually increase training difficulty to see measured results. The human body will not change unless it is forced to.’
We can achieve progressive overload and create adaptation in the muscle with several different methods, including:
- Increasing weight
- Increasing reps
- Increasing sets
- Decreasing rest time
- Increasing workout frequency
- Increasing range of movement
- Improved technique
- Increasing time under tension with each rep
- Changing exercise modality to increase intensity, eg offset work.
Ideally the manipulation of the above factors, will induce muscular fatigue during training, therefore causing the muscles to adapt. As your body adapts, the above will be changed to increase difficulty. This way you are always pushing the body to improve.
The exact threshold when progressive overload occurs and results in muscle growth isn’t exactly clear. However, an article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal says ‘the ‘overload threshold’ is never precisely known but given the lengthy time course of hypertrophy in well-trained individuals, it is likely determined by prior adaptations rather than acute prior stimuli (e.g. volume in the prior week).
‘In other words, as adaptations occur the required stimulus for overload increases, and a larger stimulus is needed to ‘keep pace’ with this increased overload threshold.’
In plain English that means, the faster your muscles adapt to your training, the more the training will need to be adjusted so that it’s more challenging and elicits more strength and muscle gains. Which is what we’re all after.
What Are the Benefits of Progressive Overload?
Increased Muscle Size
Progressive overload will contribute to an increase in muscular size. As your muscles adapt to the increased stimulus, hypertrophy will occur and the muscles will get larger. As supported in research published by the International Journal of Environmental Research of Public Health, in combination with enough protein in your diet, resistance exercise when progressively overloading the muscles will help you build muscle.
Progressive overload will ensure strength gain. As you are increasing volume, the demand on your muscles increases and therefore your strength numbers will go up. According to an article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when using progressive overload, strength is best developed in the rep and set ranges of one-to six reps and three-to-six sets per session. You can adjust the other variables above (increased weight etc) to facilitate progressive overload with those rep ranges.
In a review published by the International Journal of NPACE, self efficacy, something that the results from progressive overload enable, has been linked to exercise adherence and maintenance of new habits. The self-efficacy gained from seeing your lifts improving and increasing with new PBs becomes a positive cycle. In other words, as your lifts get easier, you will then increase the difficulty and as a result see that in following weeks the lifts are easy again. This accumulates in momentum and progress with your training, and therefore will support your motivation to workout.
It’s also important to mention that in another article published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, it was stated that the ‘mental health benefits of resistance training have included decreased symptoms of depression, increased self-esteem and physical self-concept and improved cognitive ability.’
The results from resistance-training programmes using progressive overload carry over to a multitude of health results. For example, as supported by evidence, an increase in muscle mass will reduce the risk of, muscle-wastage-related diseases, such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other causes of mortality. The review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports concluded that resistance training could result in:
- Reduced low-back pain
- Decreased arthritic discomfort
- Increased functional independence
- Enhanced movement control
- Increased walking speed
- Improved glucose and insulin homeostasis,
- Reduced resting blood pressure
- Improved blood lipid profiles
- Improved bone density
When Should I Increase Weights, Reps and Sets?
RPE or RIR scale
To know when to increase weights, reps and sets, one method is to use the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve) scale.
The RPE scale is a scale from one-to-10, 10 meaning maximum exertion, one meaning very little exertion. You can rate how you feel at the end of a set to become aware of how much you are pushing yourself. To push your muscles to a level where you are most likely to see strength and muscle gain, push yourself to an eight upwards out of 10.
The RIR scale, is a scale from 10-to-one. The number represents the amount of reps you can complete before failure. So to see the progress required to improve, challenge yourself to at least a two out of 10, so at a push you could complete two-more reps before failure.
You can also use a combination of the two scales, by rating your exertion out of 10, for example eight, with two-reps left in the tank (reps in reserve).
When your perceived exertion drops below eight at the end of sets, to a six or seven, and things feel easier, then you know that you can increase intensity using the methods mentioned above.
The RPE and RIR scales are good indicators of progress, however for the majority of gym goers, we don’t have a complete awareness of what an eight or nine out 10 really feels like. While the majority of evidence concludes that pushing yourself to failure in sets isn’t an inherent need for muscle gain and strength, it can be a useful measure of your own limits in order to use the RPE and RIR scales more effectively.
It’s important to note that progressive overload does not mean that we increase and change our programming every single week. It’s important to give yourself adequate rest in between training sessions so that your muscles can adapt.
Time: Density blocks
Make use of density blocks such as AMRAPs and EMOMs. These can be used as an efficient gauge of your progress, as you finish the allotted reps in the right amount of time, you can then move onto the next required work.
Using an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) as an example, you will be pushing yourself close to maximum exertion repeatedly, in doing so you will likely progress over time and be increasing reps as you go.
By controlling the variable of rest time in your workouts and making sure you can complete the reps successfully, you will then know when to increase the amount of work required.
How Fast Should Progressive Overload Be?
Progressive overload will occur when your muscles have successfully adapted to the work required. This will happen based on many factors, for example the quality of your rest and recovery, your training experience, your genetics, age and gender. So the amount of time progressive overload takes, will be individual to you.
Is Progressive Overload for Beginners?
Yes. Progressive overload is perfect for beginners. The principle can be adjusted to suit beginners, and it’s even been shown that results from progressive overload occur quickly in beginners too. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared new lifters with experienced lifters and found that new lifters gained over five times as much strength over 21 weeks.
It’s also worth noting that a new lifter can utilise progressive overload just by improving their technique and range of movement, without increasing weights, therefore potentially mitigating injury risk.
Beginners Workout Programme Utilising Progressive Overload
To utilise progressive overload effectively with these workouts, they are to be repeated on a weekly basis. Use a training log to gauge your RPE and progress. When exercises are less challenging towards the end of sets, use the methods mentioned above to increase difficulty.
Day 1 – Lower Body
Dumbbell Deadlifts x 8-10 reps and 3-4 sets
Drop your dumbbells to the floor just outside your feet, hinge down and grip them with a flat back and neutral spine. Engage your lats and stand upright, pushing the ground away with your feet, keeping your chest up and black flat throughout. Lower them back to the ground in a hinging motion and repeat.
Split Squats x 10-12 reps and 3-4 sets
Step back into a long-lunge position with your feet in line with your hips. Sink the back knee to the floor. Your front knee should be at a right angle and back knee under your hips. Push directly upwards, ready to repeat on the same side.
Staggered-Stance Romanian Deadlift x 8-10 each side and 3 sets
Plant the ball of one foot a little behind you and keep the weight in your front foot, hold the dumbbells at your side. Hinge at the hips and send them behind you with a flat back. Push through the front heel back to standing, ready to repeat.
Paused Goblet Squats x 8-10 reps and 3 sets
Hold your dumbbell close to your chest. Sink your hips back and descend into a squat. Your elbows should come in between your knees at the bottom. Pause here for a beat. Drive back up, tensing your glutes at the top. Repeat.
Front-Rack Carry x 30 metres – EMOM 5 (every minute on the minute for 5 minutes) 30 metres
Set a timer to go off every minute for 5 minutes. At the beginning of every minute complete a 30-metre front-rack carry. To do so, clean your dumbbells to your shoulders; knuckles almost grazing your chin. Stride forward with purpose, keeping your shoulders down and back, breathing deep into your core.
Day 2 – Upper Body
(Assisted) Pull-ups x AMRAP (as many reps as possible) and 3 sets
Complete as many reps as possible of pull-ups, repeated three times. Complete assisted or not, depending on your ability. Grasp a pull-up bar with an overhand grip over shoulder-width apart, lift your feet from the floor, hanging freely with straight arms. Pull yourself up by flexing the elbows while pinching your shoulder blades together. When your chin passes the bar, pause before lowering to the starting position. Keep repping out until you can no longer get your chin above the bar without using any momentum.
Press-Ups x AMRAP (as many reps as possible) and 3 sets
Complete as many reps as possible of press-ups, repeated three times. Drop into a plank position, with your core tight and hands stacked below your shoulders, bend your elbows to bring your chest to the floor. Keep your elbows close to your body as you push back up explosively.
Superset 1: Glute Bridge Single-Arm Press x 6-8 reps each side and 3 sets
Complete as a superset with single-arm rows. With your upper back supported on a bench and hips raised, hold one dumbbell up above your chest. Lower the dumbbell so that your elbow is 45 degrees below your shoulder, when you feel a stretch across your chest, push the dumbbell away from you. Ready to repeat.
Superset 1: Single-Arm Row x 6-8 reps each side and 3 sets
Directly after your glute bridge single-arm press complete single-arm rows in the superset. Place your right hand on a bench, under your shoulder, keeping your arm straight. Rest your right knee on the bench and step your other leg out to the side. With your free hand grab a dumbbell off the floor and row it up to your hip in an arc shape until your upper arm is parallel with the floor. Lower slowly downwards and repeat.
Push Press x 10-12 reps – EMOM 5 min (every minute on the minute for 5 minutes)
Set a timer to go off every minute for 5 minutes. At the beginning of every minute complete 10-12 reps of push press. To do so, brace your core and dip at the knees, using your legs to help press your dumbbells overhead. Lower under complete control with a slow tempo to your shoulders. Repeat.
Day 3 – Full Body – AMRAP – 15 Minutes
Set the timer for 15 minutes, complete as many rounds as possible of the following exercises in the allotted time. Make a note of how many rounds you completed and try to beat it the following week.
Goblet Squats x 10-12 reps
Hold your dumbbell close to your chest. Sink your hips back and descend into a squat. Your elbows should come in between your knees at the bottom. Drive back up, tensing your glutes at the top. Repeat.
Floor Press x 10-12 reps
Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Press your dumbbells above you, locking out your elbows. Lower them slowly until your upper arms are resting on the floor, close to your body, pause here before explosively pressing back up.
Reverse Lunges x 10-12 reps
Stand tall. Keeping your chest up at all times, take a step backward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground. Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg.
Bent Over Rows x 10-12 reps
Stand tall with your dumbbells hanging at your sides and hinge at the hips until your chest is parallel to the floor, dumbbells hanging at your shins. Maintaining a flat back, row both dumbbells towards your torso, squeeze your shoulder blades together and lower under control to the start before repeating. Control the dumbbells and avoid moving your torso, rest your head on the back of a bench to help keep your form.